Fueling Oregon’s tech boom – An interview with Skip Newberry

When Ski­p Newberry took charge two years ago as executive director of the Technology Association of Oregon, he set about elevating the organization’s standing as the voice of the state’s tech industry. The association promotes economic development by creating connections between companies and professionals, from executives to programmers. It plays a key role in public policy debates over statewide issues ranging from the economy to education.

Under Newberry’s stewardship, Technology Association of Oregon has grown from 200 member organizations to more than 300. Members range from corporate giants like Intel to small- and medium-sized companies like Cloudability. Not all are completely tech-centered, however; Columbia Sportswear is just one example.

Newberry recently took some time out of his hectic schedule to speak with us about his predictions for the state’s thriving tech economy and the critical role universities — particularly Oregon State — play in powering the tech boom.

From your perspective as head of TAO, how would you describe the state of Oregon’s tech sector?

We’re seeing the most growth and job creation in what we would consider small- to medium-sized companies, between 11 and 200 employees. Nationally, when you look at technology hubs for these Stage 2 companies, Portland is right up there. We’re not the Bay Area or Boston or Seattle, but we’re right up there with Austin, Denver, and Minneapolis as emerging tech hubs. And in terms of some metrics, when you look at areas like mobile and open source software, we’re at or near the top nationally or internationally. We’re also seeing an interesting convergence happening here between technology, health care, and the athletics/outdoor industries. And there continues to be plenty of startup activity, which means entrepreneurship is alive and well.

What industry trends do you see emerging in the next year or two?

The next 18 to 36 months could be very interesting. A lot of these Stage 2 companies are now achieving a size and scale where their valuations are north of $100 million, so they’re going to be receiving some pressure from investors who want to start seeing a return. They’re at a point in their development where expectations keep getting higher and higher, and that, in turn, means they could become acquisition targets or consider their own IPOs.

And as these companies reach these liquidity milestones, we’ll start seeing some churn. That’s where you start to see the beginnings of a virtuous cycle, where you have companies creating wealth and experience, and the people who got them there move on and do it all over again with a new company. We saw that with semiconductors and devices in the 80s and 90s, and now we’re taking another bite of the apple with software, especially with companies dealing in enterprise-level solutions.

Oregon’s evolving tech industry could very well move to the next level of maturity, as has already happened with the athletic/outdoor industry and, for that matter, the craft brewing industry.

What qualities are tech companies looking for in new hires?

We’ve had some discussions with executives from small, medium, and large tech companies, and we asked them what they are seeing in the marketplace. What they say they need are people with technical fundamentals and a demonstrated eagerness to learn, relearn, and relearn. But they also need people who understand the latest programming languages. And because those keep changing, we need to start exploring hybrid structures where professionals can go and fine-tune their skills while they are working.

They also want people with business skills as well as technical skills. The bigger picture here is that it’s no longer enough to come out of college with a really strong technical background and nothing else. So the question is how do we get technical people trained in business and business people trained in some of these technical areas? One of the biggest needs tech companies have right now is product managers, who are right at the center of what we’re talking about.

What role do you see Oregon’s universities having in the tech industry’s growth?

Having a strong university ecosystem means that companies are going to be attracted by the type of talent they can get here. Then there’s the role of research and development and commercialization. When we talk with some of the big companies around the country, they say research and development is often what leads them to create relationships with universities. And from there, they wind up contributing more in terms of resources for university research as well as students. It’s all connected.

Over the years, there has been criticism of higher education’s engagement with the tech industry, including a recent survey showing that many executives feel higher education is an “inhibitor” to growth. I haven’t heard many complaints about the quality of graduates. But you’re dealing with a more limited pool here in Oregon — we’re just smaller. So that’s an issue.

I also hear some concern about the split university system we have here. Of course, there’s a desire for more funding, but there are concerns about the efficiency of how resources are allocated and spent. Does the allocation of resources line up with where demand is greatest?

There’s also definitely an opportunity going forward for universities to be more visible and connected with industry. Universities are so big and have so much going on that they can be perceived as being a black box. So I’m talking about schools getting out there and saying, “How can we help?” and being more active in tech hubs around the state — not just Portland, but Corvallis, Bend, Eugene, Medford, Ashland. Some of it comes down to serendipity — being there at an event or at a “pitch day” and making a connection. In a way, it’s a customer service issue opening channels of communication between universities and industry. I believe there’s willingness on both sides to move this conversation forward.

More specifically, what can Oregon State do to leverage its resources and enhance its role in the tech industry?

The interest Oregon State leaders have shown in getting a handle on the state of the tech industry here is really promising. It’s much more than just talk — Oregon State is putting real solutions into place. A great example is OSU’s one-year degree program in computer science. That is just a great way for non-technical people to get a yearlong crash course, which is one of the priorities we just talked about. And being online — it offers flexibility to professionals who may want to pivot in their careers but still need to pay the bills. And there’s the groundbreaking work of the Open Source Lab, which has been a way to develop stronger ties with industry and attract more people here to Oregon.

In terms of overall output, many here in industry look to Oregon State as the premier engineering and computer science school, so it’s good to see the university working to build on its successes for the future.

–Romel Hernandez

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